Last decade proved very fruitful for social innovation in Europe. Social innovation featured at the centre of academic debates and had a place on the European public policy agenda. When the financial and economic crisis hit European countries in 2008, numerous structural problems arose including high levels of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion, the ageing societies of European countries and environmental problems, among others. Immediately, it became obvious that there was an urgent need to implement innovative responses, beyond the technological solutions, to cope with the challenges that European societies were facing.
It was in this context that social innovation initiatives began to play a central role as useful and viable tools for tackling contemporary complex problems. And thus, a rich myriad of projects began to flourish worldwide, preparing the ground for a better understanding of social innovations and their societal impacts.
8 milestones that shaped the decade of Social Innovation in Europe
Ever since 2009 the European Commission has supported social innovation by funding programmes, projects or initiatives focused not only on promoting further research on the issue but also enhancing experimental initiatives from the ground. All such projects were always included in the Europe 2020 Strategy framework.
This drive to develop the research arena and pilot actions in the social innovation field has resulted in a varied wealth of knowledge in the form of publications, policy briefs, reports and studies that have placed social innovation firmly at the centre of their debates.
However, despite witnessing, over the course of the past decade, how social innovation has gained ground in political and academic debates, and notwithstanding its promotion, there is still a long way to go before it becomes firmly rooted in the mainstream of the political agenda.
In this article, SOCIA highlights 8 remarkable milestones that have framed the path of social innovation in Europe over the past decade.
- Fostering the social innovation ecosystem
The European Union and its member states launched the Europe 2020 Strategy in 2010, which established innovation as an instrument for growth and social cohesion. The strategy was deployed through 7 flagship initiatives that marked the main areas of intervention. Social innovation was included in 3 of these, mainly in the flagship initiative ‘Innovation Union’ where it was implicitly stated that ‘social innovation is an important field that should be supported’ and in a parallel way in the ‘European Platform against Poverty’ and the ‘European Digital Agenda’ initiatives.
- Funding programmes to enhance social innovation
Social innovation in Europe has been supported by the Employment and Social Innovation Programme (EASI), the Horizon 2020 Programme, the European Social Fund, the European Regional Development Fund, the Erasmus Plus programme and the Collective Awareness Platform for Sustainability and Social Innovation (CAPS), among others.
- Promoting networks and alliances
Based on the value of the social innovations developed in Europe, in 2011 the European Commission launched the first network called Social Innovation Europe Initiative (SIE) in order to support the connection, exchange and learning of social innovation across the continent. The second network was the Social Innovation Communities (SIC) project which from 2016 until 2019 aimed to connect different social innovation actors throughout Europe and beyond. Other networks related to the sectorial approaches of social innovation have also been launched.
- Organising competitions and awards with the topic of social innovation
The promotion of competitions, prizes and awards is one of the strategies that has been used by the EU Commission to foster awareness and knowledge of social innovation in Europe. Since 2013, the year of the first European Social Innovation Competition, 7 more competitions have been launched with their focus on a varied range of topics promoting social innovation initiatives that encourage participants to visualise solutions to the challenges of climate change, migration or the use of plastics. Recently, following this strategy, the European Commission has launched the Horizon Prize for Social Innovation focusing on ideas and solutions aimed at rethinking the existing mobility systems and developing innovative solutions for the needs of an ageing population in Europe.
- Hosting international conferences
The past decade saw many conferences and congresses organised with a focus on social innovation. Among these, the most remarkable may have been the international conference entitled Opening Up to an Era of Social Innovation, held in Lisbon in November 2018. This served as a meeting to lay the foundations of Europe’s commitment to social innovation, specifically through recommendations on the areas to be promoted in the next programme, the 9th Framework Programme for funding, Horizon Europe (2021–2027).
- Developing research and seminal publications
Of the large body of studies and documentation on social innovation, only a sample of publications have proved to be a reference for policy development or further research. A selection of these are listed below:
- Empowering people, driving change. Social Innovation in the European Union. Bureau of European Policy (BEPA) Mayo 2010.
- Guide to Social Innovation. European Commission 2013.
- Social Innovation Research in the European Union. Approaches, findings and future Directions. European Commission 2013.
- Social innovation. A Decade of Changes. Bureau of European Policy (BEPA) 2014.
- Social Innovation as a Trigger for Transformations. The Role of Research. European Commission, 2017.
- Visions and Trends of Social Innovation for Europe. European Commission, 2017.
- Atlas of Social Innovation. New Practices for a Better Future. SI-Drive project. 2019.
- Promoting social innovation projects
Developing the research field for social innovation was one of the main interests of the European Commission in the last decade. From a deeper understanding and conceptualisation of the term to greater knowledge about its processes and impacts, social innovation has been the focus of many projects funded by the European Commission, specifically within Horizon 2020. From a sectorial study of social innovation to a holistic understanding of the process, a corpus of knowledge on this topic has been built by many researchers. A quick search of the projects related to social innovation funded under Societal Challenge 6.6 of the H2020 Programme gives us a total of around 260 research projects.
For an exhaustive list of social innovation projects funded by the EU Commission, we recommend consulting the CORDIS web page.
- Enhancing the Social Innovation Declaration
The Social Innovation Declaration launched in November 2018 set the ground for the inclusion of social innovation in the 9th Framework Programme of the EU Commission. Officially known as The Lisbon Declaration – Social Innovation as a Path to a Fairer, More Inclusive Europe, it comprises 3 principles, 5 key priorities and 10 practical policy recommendations. Developed over the course of 12 months of consultations, it contains the inputs of more than 350 people from over 19 member countries.
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